Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The "Dislike" Button Starts Here

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we must confront the fact that we are all leading double lives, and social networking is to blame. We certainly haven't mutated into partial robots or anything radical – no embedded barcodes in our brains quite yet – but who we are on the Internet has become almost synonymous with who we are in person. Popular networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are changing how people communicate and perceive one another.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as of 2010, 309 million people are living in America. Also in 2010, Facebook informs us that 108 million Americans are members of the site, showing a 145% growth from 2009. In the last few years, there has been a sudden and exponential surge of people who don’t just use the Internet, but choose to represent themselves personally on it.

In 2003, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg gave birth to Facebook. In its infancy, the site was actually intended to expand the level of student-to-student communication; it was a concentrated effort for him and classmates to raise grades and more efficiently study for finals. The initial vision of Facebook was a hacker’s experiment that, over time, evolved into a website run by the subscription of upcoming and current college students. Whether or not these were ever his intentions, the binding idea behind the site always seemed to be that college is scary. Being a new student at a large, reputable (or not) academic institution – a place where nearly everyone is a stranger, and you don’t share backyards or a common childhood anymore – is a profound change in a fresh-faced adolescent’s life. Facebook’s appeal was that you could meet people before you met them, thus preparing you for the frazzling, nerve-fraught first few months of being on your own.

In September 2006, Facebook’s availability was extended to high school students and from there, any person who felt the inclination to host their projected identity on the site. If we are to follow the same idealistic model behind this – that Facebook eliminated the nerve-wracking conundrum of making new friends in college – then it’s kind of unnerving to suggest that general society needed profiles as well. It suggests, both subtly and profoundly, that the real world – really meeting people, gathering the courage to risk rejection – is just too overwhelming these days. And through that evolution, it is now a given that most people in the age bracket of thirteen to… their late fifties has an account on Facebook. And through this, we are losing the value of a real identity.

How do I mean, exactly? We’re more connected than ever, on a global level! We are eradicating the notion of being “virtual strangers” with someone because, truly, there is no cap on the jar of possibility to meet anyone! There’s Twitter, and there’s Facebook, and there’s dating sites. We are also being introduced to newer sites like Chatroulette, a “game” where you are linked into a video chat with a random stranger, and Formspring, where people can anonymously submit questions, compliments, or insults onto the page you create for yourself. There is an answer to every sort of encounter that used to occur on the streets, on a train, at a bar – as well as new ways to interact with people in methods that do not occur in normal human life.

Our informal conversation skills are becoming stunted in the process, though. It is easier and preferred by many to communicate over the Internet instead of a cup of coffee. The backspace key isn't just for spelling errors, it is the promise that you will never suffer awkward conversation: you have time to think about and edit what you say before saying it. The Internet is a preemptive tool for everything you do in the real world.

Whole relationships are based off the time spent chatting on the web, or formed on sites like EHarmony and Dating sites marvel at their enhanced ability to pair people together using complex databases for simple information --- simple, rudimentary aspects of our character that attract us to one another, and the qualities and hobbies that then keep us together.

Internet bullying has skyrocketed because mean-spirited individuals have the reflective glare of their monitor to protect them from getting in trouble. The past and future becomes interchangeable, as people who would never have spoken to you high school are suddenly eagerly adding you as a “friend” on Facebook, and insisting you need to “catch up.” Catch up with what, all the time we didn't spend being close in high school? Privatization of your Facebook account or other online profile is important because potential future employers will readily review them and judge your compatibility upon its merit. We must tread carefully in this new Internet Age because it’s just not metaphysical gigabytes you interact with when you post or chat online, but real people who are aiming for the same projected idealism of themselves that you are.

Once upon a time, the Internet could serve as the forum for your alternate identity. If you secretly loved Pokemon fanfiction, or didn’t know anyone else as dedicated to manga as you, your identity on the Internet was probably based on your uncommon obsessions. Now, social networking – the online version of your real self, not your inner nerd or fanatic – is slowly consuming our entire identities, replicating it in webspace and in many ways, replacing it.

When you watch the news now, not only do media sources cite places like Twitter and Facebook, but they provide a live feed of fellow viewers right off those sites. The news has become a two-way channel in which we are not just receiving information, but aiding in its regurgitation. There is nothing good about this: news – although it never will be – is meant to be purely objective.

We should not be able to provide insight into the news, because it is completely irrelevant. I don’t care what Joe Shmoe from Marshfield thinks about President Obama; I promise, I tuned into the news because I want to know what the President is saying, not what his fans and haters are. Probably, the only person who cares what Joe Shmoe thinks is Joe Shmoe himself, and maybe his friends. Seeing ourselves reflected in the media seems to have become as fundamental as learning from it in the first place.

Throughout the 90s and even the initial years of the 21st century, a popular question posed in celebrity interviews was, “have you changed as a person?” Usually, the interviewee would smile and insist they haven’t changed a bit; they are the same person with the same nuances and flaws. I don’t really hear people ask this anymore. This is because just as the Internet gives us freedom to exist as an entity everywhere, the same privileges extend to celebrities.

Even the relative definition of celebrity has grown questionable into today's world: to some, they might consider a celebrity to be a well-loved musician, or their favorite YouTube poster – rather than just the normative television and movie actors. You can follow actors and musicians on Twitter, as well as correspond with them via Tweet. Likewise Formspring is experiencing similar success. The famous person answered you! They must really like you and care about what you have to say!

There is certainly a positive angle in breaking down the barriers between “normal people” and “famous people” but at the same time, it injects into the everyday person the desire to be just as special and individualized. The world does not have room for all of us to be celebrated, no matter how many followers you accumulate or friends you list online; no matter what the Internet suggests.

Celebrities have devalued themselves in poorly worded tweets – or heightened their appeal within them. They seem as accessible as your neighbor or cousin (also with Twitters), but they’re not. Social networking creates the false assumption that everyone is paying attention to everyone else, all at the same time. Interviews don’t ask how a newly famous person has changed because it is a moot point: you can follow their Twitter feed, check their blog, and peruse their Flickr account. You can pretend you know everything about them. You can track how they’ve changed.

Recently, on my own Facebook page (for all my haranguing I am just as much a member of the online social network as anyone else), all my interests were deleted. This is because in some new site reformation, you can no longer just list the bands, activities, movies, books or shows you like, but you have to be a fan of their page.

Theoretically, this means you will be notified on news regarding the things you are a “fan” of. In practice, this works too but it also suggests both that sites like Facebook are generating statistics on who enjoys what, and also serves as another way to link people without real life interaction. I am consistent enough on my favorite things that I don’t want to be listed as a member of a page devoted to it, thanks. It’s not some hearty opposition to “the man,” it’s just we are slowly being forced into systematic categories that seemingly have no effect on us. Behind the scenes, though, we can assume actions are being taken with such vibrant databases. Who’s deciding what we like, us or the sites we subscribe to?

I know someone who recently created a fake Facebook, posing as a girl. He used a series of pictures of an attractive young lady to support this identity. When asked why he did this, he said he wanted to see how she'd be received by local gentlemen in our area. He was satisfied with the result. Prior to its recent deletion (because his real Facebook profile became friends with the real girl’s Facebook profile), he reported that about five or so males had messaged this girl with flirtatious comments or proposals. “I bet none of them would have approached her in person,” he says, “but they thought it was okay to hit on her online.” This is pretty typical.

One Facebook user, 22 year old Amanda Decelle insists that, “The problem with Facebook is you can still pretend to be someone else, but everyone trusts you because everyone has it.” She recently relayed to me a story from her father, whose fourteen year old stepdaughter's profile lists her as nineteen, enabling her to “meet” older men… and then actually meet older men. Amanda told her father that “you can try and contact Facebook, and they will delete her profile, but she’ll probably just make another one.”

Teenage rebellion is now countered with the freedom of the Internet, which is problematic in itself. But we have realized the power that online profiles equip us with – we can be hyperbolic versions of ourselves. We can use our most flattering pictures and list the most quirky or “cool” aspects of our interests to appeal to likeminded users. We can fake our age. Don’t be fooled: the Internet is a place, and you probably spend a good deal of time there.

So, where does social networking end and human interaction begin? The lines have seriously blurred. Idle day-to-day chatter now exists on Twitter and Facebook status updates. If you are friends with someone, you are or probably should be “friends” with them online, or follow their blog, or pretend to care about the banal minutiae of their life, as documented on Twitter. People crowd on trains and buses and chat – but on their Smartphones, not amongst themselves. You don’t mosey next door for a cup of sugar, you post a status update or tweet that informs, usually in a well-planned and snarky way: you need a cup of sugar.

It’s less that we care about other people as much as we care too much about ourselves, and would like to believe that others are doing the same. And if you can prove your interest in others by adding or following them, then you can convince yourself that their mutual bond to you via the Internet proves that you are an interesting and prolific individual. Even if the Internet is constantly limiting you to 140 character statements (Twitter), or the “like” button (Facebook) when there are so many other ways to feel about things people say, there is hardly a person who does not have a profile or identity on the Internet. We are okay with being simplified to a single page and a montage of party pictures, because everyone else is. The Internet has become a place of its own, and you'd be silly not to rent out some space there.